"Tell me, then, that you don't care for me," he said, almost violently. "Tell me that you love some one else better."
It darted through Maggie's mind that here was a mode of releasing herself from outward struggle, — to tell Stephen that her whole heart was Philip's. But her lips would not utter that, and she was silent.
"If you do love me, dearest," said Stephen, gently, taking her hand again and laying it within his arm, "it is better — it is right that we should marry each other. We can't help the pain it will give. It is come upon us without our seeking; it is natural; it has taken hold of me in spite of every effort I have made to resist it. God knows, I've been trying to be faithful to tacit engagements, and I've only made things worse; I'd better have given way at first."
Maggie was silent. If it were not wrong — if she were once convinced of that, and need no longer beat and struggle against this current, soft and yet strong as the summer stream!
"Say've s' dearest," said Stephen, leaning to look entreatingly in her face. "What could we care about in the whole world beside, if we belonged to each other?"
Her breath was on his face, his lips were very near hers, but there was a great dread dwelling in his love for her.
Her lips and eyelids quivered; she opened her eyes full on his for an instant, like a lovely wild animal timid and struggling under caresses, and then turned sharp round toward home again.
"And after all," he went on, in an impatient tone, trying to defeat his own scruples as well as hers, "I am breaking no positive engagement; if Lucy's affections had been withdrawn from me and given to some one else, I should have felt no right to assert a claim on her. If you are not absolutely pledged to Philip, we are neither of us bound."
"You don't believe that; it is not your real feeling," said Maggie, earnestly. "You feel, as I do, that the real tie lies in the feelings and expectations we have raised in other minds. Else all pledges might be broken, when there was no outward penalty. There would be no such thing as faithfulness."
Stephen was silent; he could not pursue that argument; the opposite conviction had wrought in him too strongly through his previous time of struggle. But it soon presented itself in a new form.
"The pledge can't be fulfilled," he said, with impetuous insistence. "It is unnatural; we can only pretend to give ourselves to any one else. There is wrong in that too; there may be misery in it for them as well as for us. Maggie, you must see that; you do see that."
He was looking eagerly at her face for the least sign of compliance; his large, firm, gentle grasp was on her hand. She was silent for a few moments, with her eyes fixed on the ground; then she drew a deep breath, and said, looking up at him with solemn sadness, —
"Oh, it is difficult, — life is very difficult! It seems right to me sometimes that we should follow our strongest feeling; but then, such feelings continually come across the ties that all our former life has made for us, — the ties that have made others dependent on us, — and would cut them in two. If life were quite easy and simple, as it might have been in Paradise, and we could always see that one being first toward whom — I mean, if life did not make duties for us before love comes, love would be a sign that two people ought to belong to each other. But I see — I feel it is not so now; there are things we must renounce in life; some of us must resign love. Many things are difficult and dark to me; but I see one thing quite clearly, — that I must not, cannot, seek my own happiness by sacrificing others. Love is natural; but surely pity and faithfulness and memory are natural too. And they would live in me still, and punish me if I did not obey them. I should be haunted by the suffering I had caused. Our love would be poisoned. Don't urge me; help me, — help me, because I love you."
Maggie had become more and more earnest as she went on; her face had become flushed, and her eyes fuller and fuller of appealing love. Stephen had the fibre of nobleness in him that vibrated to her appeal; but in the same moment — how could it be otherwise? — that pleading beauty gained new power over him.
"Dearest," he said, in scarcely more than a whisper, while his arm stole round her, "I'll do, I'll bear anything you wish. But — one kiss — one — the last — before we part."
One kiss, and then a long look, until Maggie said tremulously, "Let me go, — let me make haste back."
She hurried along, and not another word was spoken. Stephen stood still and beckoned when they came within sight of Willy and the horse, and Maggie went on through the gate. Mrs. Moss was standing alone at the door of the old porch; she had sent all the cousins in, with kind thoughtfulness. It might be a joyful thing that Maggie had a rich and handsome lover, but she would naturally feel embarrassed at coming in again; and it might not be joyful. In either case Mrs. Moss waited anxiously to receive Maggie by herself. The speaking face told plainly enough that, if there was joy, it was of a very agitating, dubious sort.
"Sit down here a bit, my dear." She drew Maggie into the porch, and sat down on the bench by her; there was no privacy in the house.
"Oh, aunt Gritty, I'm very wretched! I wish I could have died when I was fifteen. It seemed so easy to give things up then; it is so hard now."
The poor child threw her arms round her aunt's neck, and fell into long, deep sobs.